Two years ago, it seemed like Tim Burton could do no wrong. Reteaming once again with frequent collaborator Johnny Depp, the pair took "Alice In Wonderland" to over a billion dollars worldwide, surfing the 3D wave in the aftermath of the success of "Avatar," and demonstrating once again that the pair were perfectly placed to bring the weird to the mainstream. A host of similar other projects were lined up for the filmmaker, but he settled on two that seemed to be close to his heart: an adaptation of supernatural soap "Dark Shadows" starring Depp, set for a plum summer release, and a stop-motion animated remake of the short film that made his name, "Frankenweenie."
Unfortunately (and despite "Frankenweenie" picking up the director's best reviews in years), 2012 has not treated Burton kindly: "Dark Shadows" was buried back in May, opening to a disappointing $30 million, and topping out at $80 million domestically. It did manage to make over $200 million worldwide, but given the film's reported $150 million cost, that's not going to make anyone happy, not least those who expected bigger things from the first Burton/Depp project after 'Alice.' And "Frankenweenie" might have been even more disappointing when it opened this weekend: at $11 million, it fell well behind both Burton's 2005 film "The Corpse Bride" and this year's similarly-themed "ParaNorman." Hell, when you take inflation and 3D subsidies into account, fewer people saw it than "The Nightmare Before Christmas" 18 years ago, and that was considered a flop at the time (it also played on half the screens, just to rub salt in the wound).
Now, the failure of each could be put down to a number of factors — mostly involving poor timing. "Dark Shadows" was the first major release in the aftermath of "The Avengers," which had opened to record-breaking numbers a week earlier, and it was a property that meant little to audiences. "Frankenweenie" also got shafted by the competition, landing only a week after another horror-tinged (but much more kid-friendly) 3D animation, "Hotel Transylvania," which also broke records, and had both big names (Adam Sandler & co), and a bright, family-friendly look — two things that "Frankenweenie" was lacking. Now toss in this summer's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," another flop, produced by Burton and sold on his name, and the director is likely eager for 2012 to end.
Burton has had disappointments in the past, but for the first time since "Ed Wood" and "Mars Attacks" both underperformed in the mid 1990s, one starts to question whether one of the few brand-name directors around can still draw an audience in the same way. Have diminishing creative returns (everyone saw "Alice in Wonderland," but it's tough to find many who actually liked it) made the Burton aesthetic more of a warning than a promise?
Probably not. Burton's films have always performed better when linked to established properties — "Batman," "Planet Of The Apes," "Sleepy Hollow," " Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and 'Alice' are the blockbusters of his career. When he takes on something more idiosyncratic, there's still a built-in audience, but it's smaller, normally landing somewhere between $40 million ("Mars Attacks") and $60 or 65 million ("Big Fish.") If the films are done at a decent price, like "Frankenweenie" seemingly was, then no great loss. If not, like "Dark Shadows," then it becomes a problem.
All of this probably will come to bear on the choice of the filmmaker's next project. Having just wrapped two features that were in production simultaneously, Burton is taking his time to commit to a next project firmly, although the results for the two 2012 films make some more likely than others. Given the disappointing numbers for "Frankenweenie," one might assume that his "Addams Family" animated project, on which word has been very quiet, or the similarly horror-themed "Night Of The Living," penned by "Dark Shadows" and "AH:VH" writer Seth Grahame-Smith, might not be high priorities, either for Burton or the studios backing the projects.
But one perhaps wonders whether "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children," which Burton has been developing at 20th Century Fox with Jane Goldman ("Stardust," "X-Men: First Class") writing a script, might be in trouble too. The project — an adaptation of the novel by Ransom Riggs about a mysterious orphanage — reads almost like a parody of a Burton film, and being based on a relatively little-known property makes it a tougher roll of the dice. Fox might hope for a "Harry Potter"-type success, but we can see them getting gun-shy, particularly as the set-up doesn't seem to allow big name stars to get involved.
So ultimately, we're like to see Burton's next film being something in the "Alice in Wonderland" mould. There's a few possibilities, most notably a "Pinocchio" movie starring Robert Downey Jr (although there are two rivals in the works, including a stop-motion animated film from Guillermo Del Toro); the megastar has an inviting hole in his schedule before "The Avengers 2," which could make it viable, and Bryan Fuller's script was said to already have the thumbs up from WB executives.
Alternatively, there's "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame," which Burton became attached to last year, and which would star Josh Brolin. Word's been quiet on the film (penned by "Sherlock Holmes 2" writers Kieran and Michele Mulroney) since it was announced, but it might have been ticking along in the background, and Brolin's role in "Men In Black 3" probably makes it more viable than it was before. It too, is set up at Warner Bros, so it could come down to the studio's decision as to which goes first. There's also "Monsterpocalypse," penned by "Frankenweenie" writer John August in the mix too, but with Steven Spielberg's "Robopocalypse" set for 2014, that may scare off more movement on this one.
And then there's "Beetlejuice 2," which again has Grahame-Smith set to write it. It's a little more appetizing than some of the other suggestions, if only because it's a return to the director's glory days, but as "Frankenweenie" just demonstrated, while that might make the Burton die-hards happy, it won't necessarily drawn in general audiences. Speaking of sequels, Burton's name was linked to "Pirates of the Caribbean 5" last year. It seemed unthinkable that he'd consider it at the time, given his own successes, but now the director could use a hit, a reunion with Depp might not be unfeasible (though we've heard that Disney are attempting to lure Gore Verbinski back to the series for the next installment).
All of these would be good for Burton's bank account, but for his soul, not so much. There is, of course, another option — to make a film about human beings, rather than production design. Even with two disappointments, Burton's name still carries a degree of cachet, and it would be easy enough to get a lower-budget passion project financed — look at how much fun Sam Raimi had going back to basics with "Drag Me To Hell" after the bloated, big-budget "Spider-Man 3." Finding something small (along the lines of biopic "Big Eyes," with Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds, from the writers of "Ed Wood," which he's producing, or maybe his long-gestating adaptation of cult novel "Geek Love" ) and profitable would be a smart way to bring out the Burton audience without breaking the bank.
It would be easy for the filmmaker to feel like he has no reason to do so: after all, he made a small, personal project, and all those who admonished him for films like "Alice in Wonderland" stayed away, if the box office returns are anything to go by. But we hope that the last six months encourage him to take more risks, rather than retreating further into his comfort zone.